Conservative Christianity and the Rhetoric of (In)tolerance

I’m taking a quick break in the middle of the series to address something I’ve found very interesting recently. Part 3 should be up tomorrow.

I’m not really in the business of searching the Internet for conservative rhetoric on issues like gay marriage, contraception, etc. I do try to stay abreast of the “opposing side’s” point of view like any engaged citizen should, but in the same way that it’s probably difficult for conservatives, I have a really hard time sorting out legitimate arguments–or arguments from those whom conservatives would consider legitimate figures–and absolute wacko garbage. Thankfully (or unfortunately, as the case may be), Facebook quite often brings the more legitimate articles to my doorstep as it were on a fairly regular basis. One such article caught my eye recently, posted by one of Lucas’s “acquaintances” which garnered over 50 comments, most directed at Lucas who was attempting to bring clarity to the conversation.

The blog post, by someone named Matt Walsh, can be found here. The blog is titled “If you want to prove you don’t hate the gays, all you have to do is worship at their feet,” and in a contemporary world of click-baity Buzzfeed-isms, I found that to be rather refreshing. I knew exactly what I was getting into before I even read the first sentence of the article.

Or I thought I did.

From the very first paragraph, I encountered something I’d not yet seen, at least not at the level of strength and emphasis with which Walsh was writing. Assuming many of our readers wouldn’t waste their time clicking on the link to the article, here’s the first paragraph:

I have never in my life encountered a religion as oppressive, cold, and stiff as Progressivism. I’ve never known a faith more eager to burn heretics at the stake. Even a fundamentalist Iranian Muslim would flinch if he came face to face with a western liberal’s rigid dogmatism. I imagine that even a Saudi Arabian Islamic cleric would take one look at how American left wingers react when anyone deviates ever so slightly from their established orthodoxy, and say to himself, “man, these people REALLY need to chill.”

I’m really not trying to condescend when I say that I was utterly shocked by the diction and tone of this opening paragraph. It honestly read to me like a parody–as if someone were making a joke by parodying the language of progressivism directed toward fundamentalism and reversing the positions.

But no, Matt Walsh is completely serious. I say it’s a parody because while some progressives perhaps have used language like “eager to burn heretics,” “rigid dogmatism,” or “established orthodoxy” to describe conservative Christianity, “progressives” ranging from the more conservative and clearly still Evangelical like Rachel Held Evans to the more Leftist like Adam Kotsko have shifted away from what are now sort of tired and well-worn ways of talking about conservative Christianity.

Here we have a conservative who has caught on to the cultural power of this kind of “fundamentalist bashing” discourse in post- or late-postmodern culture and is attempting to turn the very weapon used against him for a while now back onto “the liberals.” That in and of itself is absolutely fascinating to me, but there’s a much more basic point that I want to make here because unfortunately what could’ve been a very interesting read–what I thought was an actual moment of shift in the language of conservative Christianity–turned out to be the same old boring crap peddled through what is becoming increasingly more and more hostile language. That is, Matt Walsh thinks the liberals are hypocrites for being intolerant of what they see as intolerant opinion.

Progressivism, at least in the Christian context, is not nor has it ever been about the tolerance of all opinion. In some more Leftist strands (e.g. Kotsko), the discussion ends there (i.e. intolerance of bigotry with an ethical imperative in some cases to not forgive), and in others, this understanding of tolerance is carefully balanced with the call to forgive. In other words, the far Left has a problem with the idea forgiveness in all cases being touted as radical and moderates tend to want to find a way to mediate between intolerance of positions like racism and forgiveness for racists who repent.

That’s a ham-fisted representation (sorry) but I really want to just make one thing especially clear: The word tolerance does not imply, nor has it ever implied, the acceptance of all positions. The argument from Walsh and nearly every other conservative is something like: “You claim to be tolerant, but you’re intolerant of what you think is intolerance (i.e. my own opinion)!”

Yeah, no shit!

Tolerance doesn’t have any meaning if it doesn’t have the freedom to not tolerate intolerance when it sees it. By the way–progressives aren’t even interested in tolerance. Tolerance is the lowest form of acceptance of another person or idea. When you say you tolerate your neighbor practicing the accordion terribly at eight in the evening every night, you’re saying that you’re doing everything in your power not to go next door and smash it over his head. Tolerance can coexist with active mental hatred.

So to even apply tolerance to progressive Christians as if it’s their modus operandi is perhaps a misnomer. We’re not asking others to “tolerate” people of color, the LGBT community, women, etc. We’re after full participation, a recognition that folks like myself who are not members of traditionally oppressed communities need to do a lot more listening to those communities and active reflection on the places of power into which we come. And we refuse to even tolerate those who think they have the right to hate speech and bigotry. In other words, if you’re a racist, a bigot, a homophobe, a misogynist, or just a good old fashioned asshole, I’m going to call you that and not feel bad about it–even as a Christian–because I don’t think any of those things have a place in the Kingdom of God.

4 thoughts on “Conservative Christianity and the Rhetoric of (In)tolerance

  1. While I agree, fundamentally, with much of what you’ve written above, I stumble on the very last words of the very last sentence. Being a raw, naked, honest Christian is important. Sugarcoating (while potentially necessary depending on your intended audience/receiver) is not likely to be of any benefit. In fact, sugarcoating may even appear as a symptom of dishonesty/lack of faith. However, I’m not sure that I (personally) would come to the place of calling someone an asshole because they exhibit behaviors which “have no place in the Kingdom of God.” This is where I might feel like stating something to that effect, but would (ideally) take a momentary breath and think of the one commandment from which all others flow: Love. Love despite myself. Love despite my environment. Love despite all that might push/pull to the contrary. Whether this be with regards to loved ones, family, friends, strangers, or even enemies, the primary focus of the Christian should be to love.

    Easier said than done? Of course. Impossible? Without Christ. Do I screw up? All the time. Will I keep screwing up? All the time. The primary concern is to remain focused on the goal of loving as God loves. God help me on my way!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Yes, I hear what you’re saying. I didn’t want to get into in the post, but I sort of find myself between the Leftist and the more moderate position in that I want to believe there’s something radical in loving and forgiving in spite of all else–but I’m increasingly feeling like maybe that isn’t actually the most radical position on love and forgiveness. I also do think we’re reaching a point culturally where we’re just going to have to distance ourselves from people who claim to be Christians but hold positions that are clearly bigoted (as people like Tony Jones and others far more radical than him have pointed out for a while now.) We already do that with “Christian churches” that are clearly and explicitly racist. There’s a difference between, say, “loving sinners in spite of their sin,” and dealing with Christians who are I think actively speaking out against the Gospel. If people like Matt Walsh end up someday coming around, admitting that they were wrong, etc., I’m all for forgiveness. But even in the midst of those people not coming around, at the very least, I still think it’s possible to think that they’re bigoted assholes toward the least of these while still valuing their dignity as human beings, e.g. I wouldn’t want to see anyone, even Matt Walsh himself, treated the way he treats the LGBT community. That’s obviously not as strong as actively loving them, but that challenge is something I’m definitely still thinking through.

    • I gave this some more thought, and I think I can articulate my problem a little better. It has to do with lives that are at stake. If we move the focus from, “I’m calling that guy a bigot because he isn’t addressing a member of the LGBT community with the same dignity he would a straight/cis-gendered person and that lack of dignity has brought about systemic injustice” to “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t call that guy a bigot (or asshole) because we need to forgive him” then we’ve moved the focus to the wrong people. Though I’m wary of drawing a direct parallel between the Pharisees and conservative Christians, I think in this case it helps illustrate the point. Namely, whenever Jesus addresses systemic oppression, he NEVER, not once, turns back to the Pharisees and says, “Oh but it’s okay guys, because I forgive you.” Can we maybe extrapolate from the Gospels that forgiveness was available to them? Of course, but the primary concern was always for the victims of systemic oppression. Always. So when other Christians say, “Well what about my feelings?” I guess my inclination is to say, “What about them?” If you’re contributing to systemic oppression, you need to change, and if being called out as a bigot/asshole/homophobe etc. is going to call that need to your attention, then I’m all for it, because it’s the poor and oppressed who need to remain the center of our attention.

  2. Pingback: Injustice Anxiety: How Progressive Christians Have Become Their Own Worst Enemy | fluxofthought

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